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Muhammad (محمد in Arabic) (Also: Mohammad, Mohammed; the spelling Mahomet is no longer used) was born circa 570 inMecca (Makkah) and died June 8, 632 in Medina (Madinah). His full name was Abu al-Qasim Muhammad Ibn Abd Allah Ibn Abd al-Muttalib Ibn Hashim. The Islamic religion considers Muhammed the last prophet of God. He also unified certain Arabiantribes.
A Muslim will often say “peace be upon him” or sallalahu aleyhi wasallam (ﷺ: alternatively translated as “May God bless him and grant him peace” and abbreviated as PBUH or SAW) after mentioning or writing the name of Muhammad or of any otherprophet.
Born (possibly on April 20, 570) posthumously after his father Abd Allah had died, Muhammad came into the equivalent of amiddle-class family. He first came under the care of his paternal grandfather Abd al-Muttalib, a former leader of the prestigious Hashim clan (which formed part of the tribe of Quraysh). Because the climate of Mecca had a reputation for unhealthiness, Muhammad’s family gave him as an infant to a wet nurse from a nomadic tribe, and he spent some time in the desert. (This practice occurred commnly among the Makkan middle and upper class.) At the age of 6 Muhammad lost his mother Amina died, and at the age of 8 his grandfather Abd al-Muttalib. Muhammad now came under care of his uncle Abu Talib, the new leader of the Hashim clan of the Quraysh tribe – the most powerful in Mecca.
Mecca comprised a desert city-state whose main distinction lay in the Ka’aba, reputedly built by Abraham, the traditional patriarch of the Jews. Most of Makka’s inhabitants worshipped idols. The city functioned as a commercial centre with no natural resources of its own, visited by many foreign traders. By all accounts Muhammad played a very active role in the civic life of his city. His uncle Zubair founded the order of chivalry known as the Hilf al-fudul, which assisted the oppressed of the city, local inhabitants and foreign visitors. Muhammad participated as an enthusiastic member.
Muhammad assisted in some dispute resolution, most notably when the Ka’aba became damaged in a flood, and the Makkan leaders all wanted the honour of fixing the sacred Black Stone in place when it was rebuilt. Muhammad became known as Al-Ameen (“the trustworthy”) because of his spotless reputation in all his dealings. Muhammad, as the judge chosen to solve the problem, proposed spreading a white sheet on the ground, placing the Black Stone in the middle, and asking the tribal leaders to carry it to its site by holding the corners of the sheet. Muhammad himself then fixed the stone in its place.
As a teenager Muhammad began accompanying his uncle on trading journeys to Syria. He thus became well-travelled and familiar with many foreign ways.
About 595, on a trading journey, Muhammed met Khadijah, a rich widow then 40 years old. The young Muhammad (then 25) so impressed Khadijah that she offered him marriage. The marriage proved an important turning point in Muhammad’s life. By Arab custom minors did not inherit, so Muhammad had received no inheritance from either father or grandfather, but by his marriage he obtained a large fortune. The sira records that Khadija bore Muhammad six children. Although Muhammad had no children with his later wives (the reasons for this remain unclear), he did have a son with his Coptic slave girl Mary (Marya). This son, called Ibrahim, died in infancy.
In last third of his life Muhammad began to regard himself as a prophet. In 610 CE, Muhammad (then aged 40) reported that while he sat in a cave in the hills outside Mecca mediating, the angel Gabriel gave him a message from God and commanded him to memorize all of his visions. Islamic historiography holds that due to illiteracy he could not write them down. However, he did memorise, and after reluctantly revealing his experiences to his wife Khadijah, he began to gain followers by the force and quality of the words he recited. He gathered sympathetic friends who accepted his claims as a prophet and joined him in common worship and prayers. By 615 CE, he had developed a large following in Mecca.
Muhammad had a reflective turn of mind and routinely spent nights in a cave near Mecca in meditation and thought. About 610, while meditating. Muhammad reportedly had a vision of the angel Gabriel and heard a voice saying to him “You are the Messenger of God“. (From this time until his death, Muhammad reportedly received frequent revelations. Sometimes while receiving these messages, traditions note, Muhammad would sweat and enter a trance state.) Muhammad was disturbed by this vision of Gabriel, but his wife Khadijah reassured him. Around 613 CE Muhammad began preaching publicly. By proclaiming his message publicly Muhammad gained followers that included the sons and brothers of the richest men in Mecca. The religion he preached became known as Islam (submission). Both the Quran and Muhammad’s sayings indicate that Muhammad from an early stage viewed Islam as an universal religion and not merely restricted to the Arab community.
As the ranks of his followers swelled, he became a threat to the local tribes, especially the Quraysh, his own tribe, which had the responsibility of looking after the Kaba, which at this time housed the several thousand ‘idols’ that people worshipped as gods.
As Muhammad preached against this pantheon, he became deeply unpopular with the rulers, and his followers suffered from repeated attacks to person and property. Tradition holds that some Makkans launched vigorous and brutal attempts to persecute the new Muslims: forcing them to lie on burning sand, placing huge boulders on their chests, and pouring red-hot iron over them. Many died, but none renounced their new faith. Muhammad himself was not the target of this oppression: his family simply had too much influence. This environment became intolerable, and Muhammad advised his followers to go toAbyssinia.
The Makkans tried to tempt Muhammad to give up his mission by offering him political power. As Muhammad’s following grew, opponents made attempts to get him to disband or modify his religion. They offered him a large share in trade, and marriage with some of wealthiest families, but he rejected all such offers. Makkans ultimately demanded that Abu Talib hand over his nephew to be killed. When he refused, the opposition brought commercial pressure against Muhammad’s tribe and his supporters. Eventually an assassination attempt took place. After the death of his uncle and of Khadija, Muhammad’s own clan withdrew their protection of him. He sufferred abuse, stoning, and pelting with thorns and rubbish. However, no attempt succeeded in taking his life. He had to flee from Mecca in 622; this Hijrah marks the beginning of the Islamic calendar.
In 622 Muhammad and his Meccan followers left Mecca for Medina, where he had gained many converts. The Medinans apparently hoped that Muhammad would unite them and prevent incidents such as the 618 Medinan Civil War in which many had lost their lives. A document known as the Constitution of Medina (circa 622-623) established a confederation between Muhammad’s Makkan followers and the eight Arab clans of Mecca. Muhammad was referred to as “the Prophet” but gained no political authority.
In Medina a few emigrant Muslim Makkans, with the approval of Muhammad, set out on military attacks against Makkan caravans on their way to Syria, thus striking at the Makkan economy. About the same time Muhammad changed the direction of the Qibla from Jerusalem to Mecca. In March of 624 Muhammad led about 300 men to a military attack on a Makkan caravan led by Abu Sufyan, the head of the Umayyah clan. The caravan managed to escape but Abu Jahl (the head of the Makhzum clan), who had previously opposed Muhammad and organized a boycott against Muhammad’s Hashim clan, had command of a supporting force of around 800 men and wanted to teach Muhammad a lesson.
On March 15, 624 near a place called Badr, the two forces clashed. Though outnumbered 800 to 300 in the battle, the Muslims met with success, killing at least 45 Makkans, including Abu Jahl, and taking 70 prisoners; whereas only 14 Muslims died. To the Muslims this appeared as a divine vindication of Muhammad’s prophethood, and he and all the Muslims rejoiced greatly. Following this victory Medinans who had satirized Muhammad were assassinated and a hostile Jewish clan was expelled. Virtually all the remaining Medinans converted and Muhammad became de facto ruler.
Several important marriage alliances also occurred. Of Muhammad’s daughters, Fatima married Ali (later fourth caliph) and Umm Kulthum married Uthman (the third caliph). Muhammad himself, already married to Aisha daughter of Abu Bakr (first caliph) now also married Hafsah daughter of Umar (second caliph). On March 21, 625 Abu Sufyan, hoping for revenge, entered Medina with 3,000 men. On the morning of March 23 fighting began. The battle produced no obvious winner or looser, though the Makkans claim victory. For two years after the Battle of Uhud both sides prepared for a decisive encounter.
In April 627 Abu Sufyan led a great confederacy of 10,000 men against Medina. The Jews of Medina had to participate in the fighting to protect the city of Medina, as they had agreed in the Medina Charter. The Jewish tribe of Banu Qurayza did not participate in the fighting and they made an agreement with Abu Sufyan to attack the Muslims from the rear after he had entered the city. Some people among the “Muslims” also had made such an agreement under the leadership of Abd Allah ibn Ubayy, they were later referred to as “those that professes beliefs and opinions that one does not hold” (or “one who pretends to pious”) (munafiqun).
Between the strong forces of Abu Sufyan and the forces of Banu Qurayza – which would consist of all their men of fightingage – and the forces of the munafiqun the Muslims would have faced a massacre if Abu Sufyan had triumphed. Islam might have ceased to exist.
To the traitors inside Medina it must have come as a surprise when the 10,000-strong force of Abu Sufyan failed to cross a trench dug around Medina by order of Muhammad, as the Persian scribe Salman e-Farsi had suggested to him. After the retreat of Abu Sufyan and his forces, the Muslims directed their attention towards the groups that had committed treason to the Charter of Medina. The munafiqun quickly crumbled, and their leader Abd Allah ibn Ubayy pledged allegiance to Muhammad. The Muslims then besieged the Banu Qurayza, who had intrigued against them. They had the opportunity of choosing Muhammad as an arbitrator, but instead the Banu Qurayza chose Saad ibn Muadh, the leader of their former allies, the Aus.
Saad had sufferred a deadly wound in the battle against Abu Sufyan’s forces and he invoked the rules of the Jews own scriptures the Torah, ordering the execution of the active forces of the tribe, which would consist of all their grown men. He permitted the non-combatant women and children to live, though having no men to support them and the Muslim community not having the resources to support them either, they were sold into captivity.
By 627 CE, Muhammad had united Medina under Islam with protected privileges for the Jews and Christians who lived there. Word of the new religion, and of the peace and prosperity it brought, spread by trade. The Bedouin became keenly interested in this new religion; they saw its potential to bring peace and plenty to their wandering tribes, and, after much negotiation, they became allied with Muhammad. Also, after much contact with the town and Muslims, some gradually converted. At this stage the reported revelations that had visited Muhammad had almost reached completion. Divine inspiration told him to return to Mecca and to reclaim the Kaba.
Muhammad put economic pressure on the citizens of Mecca; but aimed primarily to gain their willing adherence to Islam. In March 628 he set out to perform a pilgrimage in Mecca, with 1,600 men accompanying him. The Makkans however halted Muhammad at al-Hudaybiyah on the edge of their territory. After some days the Makkans made a treaty with Muhammad. With negotiation and assent of the elders of the Quraysh he made an unarmed pilgrimage to the Kaba. Hostilities would cease and the Muslims would have permission to make a pilgrimage to Mecca in the following year. Muhammad’s marriage to Habiba, daughter of Abu Sufyan (Muhammad’s former enemy) further cemented the treaty.
This continued for a while but then the agreement broke down, and war broke out. In November 629, however, allies of the Makkans attacked an ally of Muhammad, leading Muhammad to denounced of the treaty of al-Hudaybiyah. After secret planning, Muhammad marched on Mecca in January 630 with 10,000 men. But no bloodshed occurred. Abu Sufyan and other leading Makkans formally submitted. Muhammad promised a general amnesty with some people specifically excluded. When he entered Mecca, 20 years after having to flee, virtually no resistance occurred. Though he did not insist on their becoming Muslims, most Makkans converted. In Mecca, Muhammad destroyed the idols in the Kaaba and various small shrines.
After the hijrah Muhammad began to establish alliances with nomadic tribes. At first these probably consisted of non-aggression pacts, but as his strength grew he made a condition that the allied tribe should become Muslim. While in Mecca, Muhammad received word of a large concentration of hostile tribes and he set out to confront them. A battle took place at Hunayn in which the enemy was defeated. Some now viewed Muhammad as the strongest man in Arabia, and most tribes sent delegations to Medina seeking alliance. Before his death, rebellions occurred in one or two parts of Arabia but the Islamic state had sufficient strength to deal with this.
Muhammad went to Medina (at that time known as “Yathrib”) where he was invited to become arbiter between the two rivaling tribes of Medina (the Aws and Khasraj). He declared a welfare state, collected taxes for the needy, organised town defences against numerous raiding parties from Mecca and beyond, and entered numerous trade agreements. Muhammad builtmosques, and established a religious culture based on respect for other religions and their freedom to practise (the town also housed a number of Christians and Jews). Muhammed allegedly drew up the first constitution.
Shortly prior to his death Muhammad delivered a famous final admonition to his followers known as the Prophet’s Final Sermon . His death in June 632 at Medina, at 63, provoked a major crisis among his followers. Indeed this dispute eventually led to the division of the Islam between the Shia and Sunni sects. The Shia believe that the prophet introduced Ali ibn Abu Talib as his successor, in a public sermon in his last haj in a place called Ghadir Khom, while the Sunni believe he did not.
Muhammad’s basic message emphasised belief in one God, respect for morality above and beyond tribal links, and prayer. Islamic history records Muhammad as illiterate, though some scholars argue that Muhammad probably received some form of education, and point to his successful career as a merchant. When he grew up, he travelled with many caravans as an administrator with the task of ensuring that the caravan arrived safely and with all goods intact. He did this throughout most of his working life.
The Quran probably took written form during Muhammed’s lifetime. The Quran states that Muhammad recited the entire Quran during his farewell pilgrimage to Mecca in 632, implying that it had an established order if not actually redacted onto parchment/paper.
In politics, Muhammad’s made his greatest contribution as the first unifier of the Arab peoples. Following directly in his tradition of seeking knowledge with disciplined methods, Muslims revived and also challenged Greek philosophy (see early Muslim philosophy).
As a direct result, they also instituted what we now call the scientific method and formal citation (see ijtihad, isnad, sonah) and a science of history. All of this constituted a direct outcome of Muhammad’s focus on truth, literacy, knowledge anddocumentation – and ethics as the basis of education. This led ultimately to the legal practice of fiqh.
Although some Muslim military and marital behaviour troubles some modern non-Muslim minds, any negative influences may largely stem from Muslims copying behaviors that Muhammad himself disavowed, often due to hadiths that at least some sources discredit. These impacts are certainly more difficult to assess. To what extent one can attribute the current state of the Islamic World to Muhammad as a person or leader remains highly debatable, and probably even more absurd then blamingNapoleon for the current state of the European Union. One might say that Muhammad’s influence resembled that of Napoleon, of Marx and of Confucius in combination, without over-exaggerating.
Although Muhammed exrecised and exercises a profound political and historical influence, the most lasting legacy of Muhammad remains of course his role as the prophet of Islam. He himself carefully separated his role as prophet from that as political leader – one should not in any way confuse the Quran with his own sayings (Ahadith) or actions (sira). His failings, as he himself said, remained personal, and his achievements he credited to Allah. He consistently discouraged anyone from seeing him as divine. In the words of Abu Bakr, his life-long companion, who addressed the crowd outside the mosque in Medina immediately after his death:
- “O people, verily, whosoever worshipped Muhammad know that Muhammad is dead. But whosoever worshipped God, know that God is alive“.
And in a hadith (like all such) attributed to Muhammad himself:
- “When a person dies, his deeds come to an end, except in respect of three matters which he leaves behind: a continuing charity, knowledge from which benefit could be derived and righteous offspring who pray for him“.
By his own standards, the continuing traditions of social justice in the Islamic World, of methods and knowledge of science,history and medicine as they evolved in the modern world (thanks to his profound influence driving Muslims to literacy andinquiry), and the prayers of over one billion Muslims, many of whom pray for him five times a day (or attach “peace be upon him” after each mention of his name), render Muhammad arguably the most influential man in all history, an honour often reserved for Jesus in the West. Even those historians who have deplored his influence and considered it to have retarded the growth of its chief rival faith, Christianity, express grudging admiration for the man.
- for Muhammad as viewed by the Muslims – see Islam especially sira
- for Muhammad teachings – see Islam especially hadith
- list of Islamic terms in Arabic reflects Muhammad’s overall influence
- Al-Haramain Foundation, Biography of the Prophet Muhammad, Riyadh.
- University of Southern California‘s About the Prophet Muhammad
- Life of prophet Muhammad : The story of the Prophet Muhammad from his birth to his death
- Swords of the Prophet Muhammad
- Martin Lings, Muhammad: His Life Based on Earliest Sources, Inner Traditions International, Limited, 1987, trade paperback , 368 pages, ISBN 0892811706
- Muhammad Husayn Haykal, The Life of Muhammad, Islamic Book Service, 1995, paperback, ISBN 1577311957, translation of an Arabic original
Timeline of Muhammad
Important dates and locations
around Muhammad’s life
c. 570 CE
c. 583 CE
c. 595 CE
c. 610 CE
c. 613 CE
c. 614 CE
c. 615 CE
c. 618 CE
c. 620 CE
c. 622 CE
c. 622 CE
c. 623 CE
c. 624 CE
c. 625 CE
c. 627 CE
c. 627 CE
c. 627 CE
c. 628 CE
c. 630 CE
c. 630 CE
c. 631 CE
c. 632 CE
c. 632 CE
c. 632 CE
Possible birth (April 20) : Mecca
End of ancient South Arabian high culture.
Abyssinian unsuccessful attack Mecca
Takes trading journeys : Syria
Meets and marries Khadijah
Reportedly “Receives message” : Mecca
Appears as Prophet of Islam : Mecca
Begins public preaching : Mecca
Begins to gather following : Mecca
Emigration of Muslims : Abyssinia
Banu Hashim clan boycot begins
Medinan Civil War : Medina
Banu Hashim clan boycot ends
Converts tribes to Islam : Medina
Takes leadership of Yathrib tribe
Preaches against Kaaba pantheon : Mecca
Makkans attack Muhammad (Hijrah)
Confederation of muslims and other clans
Constitution of Medina
Battle of Badr (Quraysh) : Badr
Muslims win against Quraysh : Mecca
Makkans defeat Muhammad : Uhud
Expulsion of Banu Nadir Jewish tribe
Attacks Dumat al-Jandal : Syria
Opponents unsuccessful siege : Medina
Battle of the Trench
Destruction of the Jewish Banu Qurayza
Bani Kalb subjugation : Dumat al-Jandal
Unites Islam : Medina
Treaty of Hudaybiyya
Muslims gain access to Mecca shrine (Kaba)
Conquest of the Jewish oasis : Khaybar
First hajj pilgrimage
Attack on Byzantine empire fails : Mu’ta
Attacks and bloodlessly captures Mecca
Battle of Hunayn
Siege of al-Ta’if
Establishes theocracy : Mecca
Subjugates Arabian peninsula tribes
Attacks the Ghassanids : Tabuk
Farewell hajj pilgrimage
Dies (June 8) : Medina
Tribal rebellions throughout Arabia
Abu Bakr (khalifa) reimposes theocracy